Nashville SC

Analyzing Nashville SC’s defensive situation

Since preseason friendlies have Pac-Manned up much of my time and energy lately (in addition to the municipal government crumbling around us and the like), it’s been a while since an entry in my series looking at statistical previews of the Nashville SC roster position-by-position.

Previous entries include wingers, goalkeepers, and attacking midfield. (Entries to come include defensive midfield and striker, then, yeah?).

The Romney Question

Dave Romney drew some raised eyebrows – even a bit of ridicule – after saying he’d looked at the stats and concluded that he didn’t get a fair shake for playing time with LA Galaxy (a point he was pretty clear about while still in the City of Angels, as well).

I’m not out here to blindly defend the guy, but as it relates to 2019, at least, we have a bit of a Simpson’s Paradox: his numbers look worse than average because the dude played almost exclusively away games – and the Galaxy had a much tougher time in those than in home games (and they weren’t super-great at home, either!). The strength of opponent played against also becomes relevant here. For that reason, I’ve broken things down with my schedule-adjusted numbers. Behold, LA Galaxy’s defensive performances with Romney on (big guys) or off (little guys) the field (the medium guy we’ll get to in a minute):

Romney
Zero is average.

As you can see, he participated in a couple rough games on the road (again, we’ll get to that mid-sized guy in a sec), but also the two best defensive performances of the year on the road. His other three performances were about road-average. He played multiple positions during the year, so there’s some noise about how much individual effect he could have – before even getting into the idea that it’s generally impossible to determine how much impact an individual defender can have in xG terms anyway.

At home, the Galaxy’s defense was generally quite horrible, and by the end of the year – he did not play in Carson until the final three home games of the season – the Galaxy had essentially given up on playing defense anyway, trying to outscore everybody. It was fun soccer to watch.

So, about that half-sized dot: he came on at halftime as a Guillermo Barros Schelotto rage-sub after Jørgen Skjelvik was awful in a first half against LAFC and GBS unceremoniously yanked him. The Galaxy had given up two goals to LAFC riiiight in the range that Skjelvik should have been defending (with three key passes coming from the left side of the defense, as well). Romney came in and the key passes from that defensive left side dried up completely, and the xG numbers dropped from a first-half 2.08 to 1.09 (still not great; significantly less horrible) after the break.

Thanks to ASA’s Eliot McKinley for xG data by-half.

The rest of the squad

The Romney section is split out because it’s the topic that drew some controversy back in November. However, I did touch on an important overall point in it: it’s freakin’ difficult to separate out individual players’ contributions to the defensive effort from xG or strict goals perspectives. Instead, we’ll take a look at how much individual players were even on the field, and the quality of the defense for which they could or could not play:

Player (Pos.) 2019 Team (xGA/rank) Mins. (share)
Jalil Anibaba (CB) New England Revolution (1.77/24) 1764 (57.6%)
Dan Lovitz (LB) Montreal Impact (1.12/5) 2520 (82.4%)
Jimmy Medranda (LB) Sporting Kansas City (1.40/16) 176 (5.8%)
Eric Miller (RB) Minnesota United (1.25/8)/NYCFC (1.11/2) 435 (22.0%)/329 (26.1%)
Dave Romney (LB/CB) LA Galaxy (1.50/18) 928 (30.3%)
Walker Zimmerman (CB) LAFC (0.98/1) 2169 (70.9%)

Obviously players’ reasons for not seeing the field vary: Jalil Anibaba and Eric Miller appear to both just be coaches’ decisions. Romney’s lack of minutes is discussed above (but mostly a coach’s decision). Medranda missed almost all of last year with injury. Lovitz and Zimmerman basically only missed time for load management or international duty.

So: a couple under-used guys on decent defenses, a guy or two who has an argument for potentially improving his team’s defense if he had gotten more time, a couple players who were lock starters for elite defenses… this basically runs the gamut.

Since it’s so hard to determine the contributions of an individual defender, we’ll let it stand as-is. Given we don’t have robust data on the non-MLS signings, I’ll let the minor statistical insights from their signing profiles stand as our base of information on them:

Ken Tribbett and Taylor Washington formed part of the USL Championship’s best defense last year, and given that we have seen with our own eyeballs more than the depth of USL stats from Opta can provide, we’ll trust those (lying, to be fair!) guys for now.

Offensive contributions

Let’s take a look at Nashville’s internal MLS signings in terms of the offense they provide. Broken down by centerbacks and fullbacks/wingbacks (with guys like Jalil Anibaba and Dave Romney getting different positional distinctions depending on year):

You’d expect centerbacks (set pieces) to be mostly goals-oriented, and fullbacks (crosses or passes in the offensive third) to be more assist-oriented.

One thing that probably jumps out is a decrease in Walker Zimmerman’s overall contribution last year. I would imagine that’s out of a matter of (lack of) necessity: LAFC had an elite offense last year, and probably didn’t need to sacrifice defense/energy by putting its best centerback into the offensive third on set pieces. You live with contributions from other personnel in that situation, and if you don’t get the set-piece goal, you have Carlos Vela to score anyway.

Overall

Nashville SC spent big on its centerpiece, picked up a couple other starter-caliber players (on their previous teams) from around MLS, and “valued the undervalued” with some other internal pieces, before also adding talent externally.

There are other factors to break down here – expected passing is something I didn’t dive into here, and is relevant for these guys, and potentially more informative about their individual styles than some of the other aspects we look at – and it should all come together to form a cohesive whole.

As I mentioned in the keeper analysis, Joe Willis is good-not-great – probably replacement value, with upside when he’s playing behind an elite defense. It appears (before we even get into what appears to be a strong defensive midfield) that Gary Smith is cognizant of that, and valued putting together a backline with pieces that should come together to be more than the sum of its pieces.

Unless otherwise noted, all data derived from American Soccer Analysis.

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